Fri, Oct 24, 2008 - Page 9 News List

From Kandahar to Kabul: the globe’s most deadly road

A project that was to bring about economic prosperity for millions of poor Afghans has become a symbol of failure in Afghanistan


The mood inside the bus is grave. It is just before 3am. The passengers — burdened with suitcases, cardboard boxes, cloth bundles and flasks of green tea — have the air of prisoners of war being transported to an uncertain fate.

“When you’re on the bus, you don’t talk with the people you don’t know in case they’re with the Taliban,” said 19-year-old Asadullah, an electronic spare parts dealer who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

Asadullah and his fellow 55 passengers are taking a ride along the 483km highway that many believe is the most dangerous stretch of road on the planet. Linking Kandahar and Kabul — Afghanistan’s two largest and most economically vital cities — and completed almost five years ago, the road was meant to open a gateway to economic development and improve the quality of life for Afghans.

The US State Department touted the US$190 million project as “the most visible sign of America’s post-war reconstruction” in Afghanistan.

But today the road is a symbol of instability across the country, the failure of government and international security forces to maintain law and order, and the increasing presence of the Taliban.

Government and military officials say insurgents and bandits regularly pull travelers from their vehicles, murdering or kidnapping them for ransom. Corrupt government security forces seek bribes and collaborate with insurgents and robbers. Roadside bombs frequently target Afghan police and military patrols, along with NATO convoys. No one in an official capacity can even quantify the violence.

“I have to take these risks,” said Asadullah, who makes the treacherous journey between Kabul and Kandahar once a month. “I have to make money to buy food for my family.”

Afghans unable to afford the US$100 one-way airfare between Kabul and Kandahar pay an average of US$6 for the bus ride. They hope the bus will be safer than traveling in private vehicles, which are favored targets of the Taliban and highwaymen.

Responsibility for security along the highway initially was handed to Afghanistan’s national police, but shortages of men and weaponry, and the recent increase in violence along the road have forced the government to deploy military units as reinforcements. The road is littered with burned-out green police pick-up trucks, 4x4 vehicles, NATO supply trucks and demolished bridges.

Afghan General Abdul Alim Kohistani, the regional police commander who oversees the territory, said he has 180 men to man the 14 checkpoints along the route. He said that he needs at least 320 more officers and heavier firepower to provide adequate security.

“The Taliban has RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] and mortars. How can we fight them when we only have PKs, AK-47s and fewer men?” Kohistani asked, referring to the machine guns and rifles his men carry. “We want to take control of this highway and show the world and the Afghan people that we are capable of doing this.”

The army now has a base near the midpoint between Kabul and Kandahar and has established 15 checkpoints with at least 40 to 50 soldiers at each one.

Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman General Zaher Azimi said that manning checkpoints on the highway is a policing job and the army is already hard-pressed with other duties.

But the military has no alternative because “instability is increasing day-by-day.”

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